Real blood

By Tom Briglia

Round 4, 2019
St Kilda 3.2, 5.5. 8.9, 10.14 (74)
Hawthorn 3.2, 6.5, 10.8, 10.9 (69)
Crowd: 35,883 at Docklands, Sunday, April 14th at 3.20pm

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What a beautiful Sunday it was to go to the footy. But wait a minute, a large number of people built this giant stadium incorrectly, despite having hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal, so the roof is shut. Instead of the wondrous elements of the world that literally determine the light we see the moments of our footy lives in, it was time to go inside to the Concrete Disney Store at three o’clock in the afternoon. Congratulations to all of those involved for the work in designing and creating this incredible mistake, and for their resulting wealth.

Sunday afternoon in the 3.20pm timeslot is something we’ve been told is lucrative, but that’s only if you enjoy the actual moment you hope to spend your week waiting for being cut out altogether by Channel 7 and co-conspirators Fox Footy because they’re desperate to get to the news (or Bounce). Don’t ever forget that Channel 7 boss Tim Worner said last year, “We want back-to-back shootouts…I want more goals … That’s the most valuable 30 seconds of screen real estate in Australian television, aside from the 30 seconds after an over”. They didn’t even ruin the moment for anyone watching on TV on Sunday, they jettisoned it entirely.

***

For 2019, it’s still becoming harder to tell what the hell is going as more footy is played. Partially because of last year’s close finish (which was only five games ago heading into Sunday) I was genuinely expecting a close game either way, and probably played in the same way as last year’s. The week had been dulled by a win pissed away, interstate or not. We’ve seen it before in the past on bigger and the biggest days. We know what it looks like. And we had a chance to see how the players responded to it.

***

Strange to see Koschitzke, Dunstan, Rowe, Armitage, Sziller all playing under the Concrete Disney Store roof at 11.50am on a Sunday in 2019. Robbie Young ran into goal and missed in the first quarter, and Rice was moving and marking like a competent forward and skewing shots on goal, so it’s nice to know we have guys who can come straight into the team. Hind arguably could have been chosen as Geary’s replacement at quarter time (12 touches and a goal before finishing with 41). Paton was in line and had to sit on the bench wearing the Sandy-but-actually-St Kilda-but-actually-Sandy jumper (Nigel Carmody called the Zebras “the Saints” early in the broadcast), while Box Hill ran around in their early-to-mid-2010s unnecessary cartoon-on-unnecessary-white clash jumper.

Hawthorn playing an away match away from the MCG meant they were wearing their almost-excellent clash jumper (sabotaged by designers constantly forcing unnecessary side panels onto clash jumpers, and ironically in this case bringing back brown stripes on gold that they tried moving away from in the first place). Like the stadium itself, never forget that people and organisations get paid exorbitant amounts of money and have fantastical resources to make these fuck-ups a reality, but at least they were running out to The Fable Singers’ version of their song. Our pre-match this week included a live marching band playing the song as the players ran out – which was infinitely better than any off-the-shelf RAWK song they’ve tried – before cutting to the actual club song as the players broke through the banner. The only problem was that the club is running with the shitty cover version of the song that no-one-asked for. This was followed by the player-by-player introduction on the screen which was tired and ignored as soon as the cheers for Jade Gresham gave way to blanket silence for Shane Savage. It didn’t really work for the Bombers the other week when it was their home game with more than 44,000, and it didn’t work here. Saintly Hymns made another bizarre in-match appearance over the PA, and was met by bemusement and scattered laughter. But the club has the money I paid for a level two Ultimate membership, so it’s got what it wanted.

***

A tight first quarter featured the bulk of the game’s slicker moments, outside of gif-worthy Acres cruising. Lonie’s first for us came from a svelte Rowan Marshall handball over the top of this head and a neat snap around the corner. John actually wound up from 45 from a set shot a few minutes later going for our second, but didn’t make the distance (the ball came off a surprised Bruce’s hands uncontested). Long had spotted him by himself and drilled a tidy pass in a sign that showed the composure and wherewithal going forward that disappeared on the flight to Perth had returned – the change in angle (current buzz term) rather than a kick long kick down the line. From the short kick-in pass, Newnes charged in from behind to spoil and Long moved so quickly at the fall to grab the ball, turn and kick it almost looked rushed, before it occurred to me once he’d kicked it that this is what it looks like when a player is deft and accurate, and that’s what a good team can do.

Matthew Parker’s first of a couple of huge tackles was a little more of a surprise. Breust had taken an excellent mark between Billings and Paton, and had barely stepped off his line but Parker was alert enough to the umpire’s call and hit him hard with what is already a trademark of his. Paton ran off with it and found the GOAT in the square. Perceived pressure has been non-existent coming from us, but now a heavy tackle or a turnover that makes you look silly looms at any point, and with swift consequences.

Moments like that have quickly rubbed off on the crowd. The members’ section was confident enough to have a crack at Sicily when he fell over himself trying to get low to a ball in front of the members, and then stumbled through a few bumps with Membrey and Acres heading back to his position. The crowd was shitty with the umpiring too, but our players are a bit mouthier and hitting harder, and there was something a bit more organic in the tension on the field. Something was at stake again.

But as we’d seen through so much of 2017 and 2018, the opposition just didn’t have to work so hard – or at least it appeared as much – and only needed a small lapse in concentration for a turnover and they had exorbitant amounts of space going forward. The bare bones of their structure still allows for that, even if their list is in a period of transition (keeping in mind they finished top four last, while our rebuild hasn’t gone anywhere and is into its sixth year). A 50-metre penalty on the half-time siren gave Ricky Henderson a goal and the Hawks the lead. Star injured-but-not-anymore recruit Scully was busy, Wingard was providing trademark Wingard moments, and the forward space and movement allowed instant decent results after Roughead two dropped easy marks in the 50.

At half-time, Membrey, Kent, Bruce and Parker between them had 11 touches, 0.0 and not much more impact outside of Parker’s tackle. Lonie had gone from 1.0 to 1.3 in a game that didn’t afford many decent opportunities. “He who is not afraid of death by a thousand cuts dares to unhorse the emperor”, but we’ve been unhorsing ourselves since September 2009.

Billings had a couple of misses to his own name from similar spots but had racked up 34 touches, while Captain Seb Ross had already picked up 24 touches and kicked one of his one-every-couple-of-months bullets from outside 50 on the run – itself engineered by Billings being prepared to sit under a high ball and take the hit if it came. It wasn’t the last time he’d do that.
When Roughed kicked his third quarter goal the margin had walked out to 26 points. We simply couldn’t get the ball past a very compressed zone coming out of defence and aside from Seb Ross our midfield was getting stepped on. An unexpected breakthrough came when a Bruce attempt to reclaim mark of the year from Hayden Crozier hit the deck and Lonie was there for an important tackle, Acres swept past and gave off to Newnes in the square on his own. But straight away the Hawks clearance went wide to the 50 metre arc and a wild show of athleticism from Connor Nash was followed by a long handball and smart volley by Puopolo that found Scully, and the curling goal from the pocket put the margin back out to 24 points and demonstrated the gulf in class. There were 10 minutes and 33 seconds left in the third quarter, and it was going to be the Hawks’ last goal.

***

There was no way to know that, and if you say you saw it coming you’re a filthy liar. The Hawks had made their move, and it didn’t feel like St Kilda could make one in response. What would change? The long, high panicked kicks of 2018 and last week had been replaced, granted, but only with not overly sharp, shorter kicks around the ground (usually too high), and occasionally some players running in numbers a little too closely together. The margin for error felt too small. A monopoly on the play in last chunk of the third quarter yielded just two goals and lot of frustration. Lonie snuck a set shot in but it wasn’t getting anyone overly excited, but some things started to shift. Acres obviously completed his pre-season training load towards the end of the second quarter, because he was now taking marks and gliding through traffic all across the ground. A beautiful long handball to Gresham on the rebound released Gresh goalside and he put on the jets but scuffed the kick to Membrey. Moments later though, the GOAT was responsible for a rare moment of clarity as part of the next rebound out of defence. He took the absolute piss on the 50-metre arc with a ridiculously relaxed mark (two bites), turn and neat kick off one step to the leading Bruce who converted. Aside from the first two goals, it might have been the cleanest thing that happened all day. Lonie missed another set shot, Parker went for mark of the year at the top of the goal square and it went through his hands. That would have blown the roof off; this had come after some saucy #freekickhawthorn action, and maybe a little bit secretly it felt good to experience tension like that again.

***

The final quarter very nearly became a mirror image of last year’s – an early goal (Gresham last year) before a dour wrestle with no royal opportunities, and Hawthorn slowly crushing out a small win.
A look at the stats (or just the game generally) at the main change would have hinted that the key to a turnaround from halfway through the third quarter would have Bruce and Membrey getting involved, and the ball in the hands of Parker, Kent and Long more often. But it was Marshall floating up forward that offered two marks and shots on goal early, with the second absolutely flushed to bring the game back onto our terms. The dour contest in the mould of last year did eventuate, and ultimately was decided by another disconcerting set shot at goal from Lonie with around five minutes to go from – after everything – an arguable free kick. Lonie kicked 1.5 since opening our account, and his kicks had been awkwardly low always peeled away to one side. But the goal that never materialised last year had come.

For the talk of being the fittest team in the competition coming from the club, this might be how it is expressed. It’s not a run and gun style with high scoring (although accurate kicking at goal might change that), but rather by gradually pressuring teams into submission as the game wears on, using the ability to get numbers around the opposition more often and more effectively. Richo and the players talked about priding themselves on their team pressure as early as 2015, but earlier this year Richo moved to talking about a shift in reliance to attack as well as defence. The opposition has been kept to 84, 65, 71 and 69 points, but our scoring accuracy is still a horrible problem though, and we’ve kicked 10.16, 9.12 and 10.14 in the last three weeks for a total of 29.42. Until we do start kicking straight this is more of a Sydney’s 2005-style “we’ll score slightly more than your low score” than what we might have been expecting. Our aggregate game margin is 22 points, the fourth lowest in VFL/AFL history, and Gold Coast’s opening month has it in first place. The players might have sensed this, and Seb hinted at it post-match – “I hope the Saints fans look forward to it because most of our games this year are gonna be tight ones”. There is a purpose and willpower across the team; they’re playing like they believe in something.

***

Ten years ago, it was a win over Hawthorn in Round 19 with a heavily undermanned team that appeared to all but pass on the title of premiers. On that day in Launceston, the 1966 team had come together for a reunion, and that afternoon the Saints of 2009 kicked the premiership score of 10.14 (74). On Sunday, with no premiership, but with wooden spoon sitting in the middle of the decade that had passed, against the Hawks we kicked 10.14 (74). It came from the same three-quarter time score as the 1966 Grand Final, and just a few points either side of the quarter- and half-time scores. We’re pattern-seeking mammals and when St Kilda is going to throw up any coincidences, usually it’s just going to make you mournful. Ten years is a long time. There’s a gravity to being a St Kilda supporter. These weeks are for at least trying to feel free of some of that weight.

***

The score review for Lonie’s non-goal with a bit more than three minutes left was cruel, but only for the way it unfolded. Ultimately the right call is made, so that’s good (the Saints were part of a key moment that brought the technology in, but by then Geelong had won not one, but two premierships). The goal umpire should have just called for a replay straight off rather than coaxing the crowd into raptures, and disrupting the flow of the game and potentially shunting around the momentum of the match. It felt like a typical St Kilda moment. But this game was won with character and commitment that shows a real difference. Standing up to the challenge of that moment, when the game appeared to have been close to won, may well have been less difficult than generating it in the third term. So, like the draw against GWS last year, like Round 5 against the Swans in 2002, we look to young guys to get us through a dour grind. No Carlisle, Steven, Roberton, Paddy, Hannebery and no Geary. Instead it was Billings, Lonie, Wilkie, Acres, Gresham, and Marshall that stepped up. These are the games that get us attached to these players.

They’re not just in our best, but they’re influencing the way the game is played and the result. Holding on to the ball with more composure allows Billings and Gresham and now Lonie and Marshall to show off what they do – often it’s because they’re the ones with the ball and have been given to the order to do something creative with it. Marshall was effectively another midfielder for much of the game, and his move forward in the final quarter was a promising order from the coaches’ box in the moment that genuinely worked in our favour, Marshall had done it in defence last week, and this time he did it in the middle and up forward. His seven clearances weren’t the scooping long leg of a lumbering ruckman forcing its way through traffic and gravity to tumble a ball forward; he’s able to balance himself and kick a very considered ball.

Lonie was one of the revolving small forwards cast prior to the end of 2018 that at various times featured Minchington, Wright, Sinclair, Long, Murdoch and Weller. Despite the wayward 3.5, he now has a performance to his name that can rightfully be described as matchwinning.

On the replay I see Billings sitting under the ball with a newfound physicality several times, setting up Seb, holding onto a tight contested mark late in the game at the risk of being knocked off balance and the spillage meaning an instant Hawthorn rebound turnover. Robbo’s Monday Hero Callum Wilkie plays with composure in the air and at the fall of the ball, regardless of how hot the situation is, and I see him deciding to leave his man in the goal square late in the game to end up horizontal in spoiling the ball and denying Gunston a shot at goal; I see a rejuvenated Newnes making an impact at every stoppage in the final two minutes and playing like the leader he’d promised to be. It might be fleeting, but right now it feels good to feel good about the Saints.

  • Campbell

    Great write up Tom.

    What an enjoyable month of footy it has been. If you had of offered up a 1-3 or even a 2-2 start i would’ve snapped your hand off. To be here at 3-1 is astonishing. To be fair i was content with our preseason and clearly Richo and his team have worked hard in the off season to create a strategy and implement a style that suits our players. Most importantly, the penny dropped for many of ours boys over summer. They seem to have invested in themselves and each other to the point where they have developed a bit of resolve, 4-5 goals down doesn’t phase them or their effort. It’s bloody refreshing.

    It’s fantastic to see the younger guys grabbing games by the scruff of the neck. We’ve longed for these performances by Billings, Gresham, Newnes and Lonie. I simply cannot believe how good Callum Wilkie is. What a pick up. Without him we could conceivably have been 0-4 or 1-3. It’s as though he lives for the last quarter. Is he Sam Fisher reincarnate?

  • Tom Briglia

    I was saying this to my brother the other day – I thought 2-2 would have been great, hopefully getting past Gold Coast and pinching one against Freo. 3-1 is great, but as you say, it’s the way they’ve won that has stood out. Something really has clicked, or shifted, however you want to describe it, but it’s happened.

    Wilkie (right now) looks like something between Jason Blake and James Gwilt, but the more of an aerial impact he makes (and how clean he is) has a lots of Sam Fisher about him.

    Lonie was one of those players that one or two years ago I just didn’t know what a good game from them would look like. Turns out it’s something more manic than what he usually does, but he’s doing it all the time, and I think he uses his agility when he’s got the ball a lot better now. I would never have picked this. Newnes has been fantastic and is back into Captaincy Smokey-Style Newnes.